From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
From The Washington Post, my favorite map of the U.S.
St. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to express our most intense or obscure passions. But words can be a frail tool to capture the complications and complexities of this thing we call love: the sweet blush of infatuation, the kinship and kindness of true companions, the frenzy of unfettered lust, the torments of jealousy, betrayal, or heartbreak. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that three films set on Valentine’s Day hinge on the fragility and feebleness of words, creating worlds where meaning and reason fall apart.
I’ve been craving cheesecake lately.
It’s a little odd, because I don’t much care about cheesecake. It’s pleasant, and frankly I make great cheesecake, but it’s not something I’ve ever craved. Not until now.
Thanks to social media, today I’ve been privy to several groups of friends chatting at length about what gifts they should get their fathers. And I realized with a pang why I’m thinking about cheesecake.
It’s almost the anniversary of Dad’s death. And instead of thinking about it, instead of reasoning out my sorrow and loss, my body tells me to eat cheesecake.
My dad never needed much, which meant coming up with a gift for him was either very simple or very complicated. The complicated gifts were fun: The big bag of homemade firestarters, fatwood kindling, extra-long matches, and telescoping marshmallow forks, and s’mores ingredients to make the most of the fireplace in my parents’ new home, about which he was so excited. The big flat basket full of fancy paper clips, pens (appropriate for one leftie, from another), nice paper, and magazines to celebrate the completion of a new room on their house, the study he’d wanted for several years. The balsa-light, elegantly carved wood-and-wool dusting tool to clean the top shelves of its built-in bookcases without taxing his overworked lungs and frail arms.
But most years, there was one simple thing he asked for and one simple thing I gave him: a cheesecake. Nothing fancy, nothing gussied up. He liked it as plain and simple as it could get. That’s how I learned to make it when I was a child, and that’s how I like it, too.
When he was young and stronger, I’d make a whole cheesecake for him to keep in the fridge and eat huge slices of until it was gone. As he got older and his appetite failed, I made smaller cheesecakes, or made a batch of two-bite cheesecakes or bars to keep in the freezer so he could nibble away on them for months. He’d call me up, days or weeks or months later, to tell me how much he loved it, and we both knew it was more than cheesecake he loved.
I’ve made cheesecake since my father died — once, for a party a few months later. I don’t think I even tasted it. I haven’t made it since.
But this winter, I will. I’ll make a simple cheesecake, just cream cheese, eggs, sugar, and a spike of vanilla and lemon in a barely-sweet crust. And we’ll eat it. And I’ll remember my father, who loved complicated things and simple things. And I’ll think about how our relationship was complicated and simple, and how much I love him.
When I was a little girl and we went out for dinner, Dad would always give me the cherry from his whiskey sour. When I was ~35, if he ordered a whiskey sour, he would still offer me the cherry.
Dad was always proud of me, and always for unexpected reasons. When I was a weird little kid ordering snails or frog’s legs in restaurants, he was proud of me for that.
When some dear friends offered me their summer house furniture for my new apartment, Dad and I went over to collect it. The gentlemen neighbors saw me getting ready to heft the clunky table and blurted “Oh, no, Miss Emily, it’s awful heavy, you should let your father do that!” My rail-skinny Dad and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Dad assured them “She’s strong!” He was proud of that, too.
When I’d visit them, Dad used to slip me a little cash money once in a while. Usually it was a $20, sometimes it was a $50, once or twice a $100. Sometimes specify what I could use it for: he’d say “for your cab fare” or “to tip the driver” or “for dinner on the road” or—my favorite—”spend it on something silly.”
Dad used to cook dinner every Sunday while Mom would take a nap or read a book in their bedroom, several stories up. When we moved to a one-story house, where she could hear his incessant swearing as he tried to heat canned foods without incident, Mom decided Sundays weren’t so relaxing anymore. (We eventually moved to Sundays being “fend-for-yourself” nights, but I’ll never forget Dad calling out “EVERYTHING I TOUCH TURNS TO SHIT!” while trying to heat up canned chili.)
Dad made up little songs and jingles every single day, and especially when he was driving.
Dad once asked my (middle) sister quite seriously whether she saw any signs of creeping dementia in him. “Do you think I’m losing it?” She responded “Dad, how would we know?” He found this answer reassuring.
When there was only one grandchild in the the family, Dad christened her “The Smart Baby.” I finally pointed out that he’d better stop calling her The Smart Baby before someone else had a kid, because it wouldn’t do to have two grandchildren known as The Smart Baby and The Other Baby. He was receptive to this logic.
Dad loved Egg McMuffins. Loved them. But only in theory. In practice, he was almost always disappointed by them. But he kept making special trips to the drive-thru, so strong was his faith. I have a great Dad-in-hospice story to tell about an egg sandwich, but I can’t bear to cry right now, so it will have to wait.
Dad, who spent the last decade of his life hampered by CPOD, loved that Mom kept traveling even though he couldn’t. He would promise her he’d be fiiiiiiiiiine, just go! And almost always, he’d call me in the first 24 hours after she left to help him with some seemingly small task he just couldn’t manage. The one that stands out in my mind is the time she left for the airport and maybe three hours later he called to ask me to come over and change his sheets: he’d celebrated his solo lifestyle by going to bed to watch TV and bringing A WHOLE GLASS OF ORANGE JUICE, and then upended the entire glass into the bed without even taking a sip.
About a month before he died, during a long cold rainy stretch when I was spending a lot of time commuting between his home and mine, Dad left me a voicemail on my old machine telling me he “just called to check in, and to tell you we love you. I keep thinking of you at the bus stop. Keep dry in the rain… and out of the rain.” I kept that message for months. When I moved and had to unplug the machine, the message erased, which is just as well. I still think about it a lot.
The Dad-est thing that my Dad ever did, he didn’t even do. I kept a secret from him so his last days wouldn’t be filled with a terrible anxiety… the anxiety about the mail getting slightly damp.
I miss him every day.
There are a lot of things true love is, and here are just two of them:
True love is sending your exhausted husband home from the hospital overnight because there’s no sense in both of you going without sleep, and never regretting it during the long, lonely, sleepless night.
And true love is sitting in that rumpled hospital bed in the faint light of morning, hours before he could possibly be planning to return, hearing distant footsteps two corridors away, and knowing those are his footsteps, coming straight to your room.
In which my husband improves upon the work of John Legend, Bruno Mars, and One Direction:
The Fella: You’re beautiful.
me, around a mouthful of ham and bread: I’m full of ham sandwich is what I am.
The Fella: That’s what makes you beautiful.
Let’s hear the song about that.
I like big muscles and red corpuscles
I like a beautiful hunk o’ man
[Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) and nameless Olympian from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?”]
“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”
Today at The Toast, my essay about motherhood as depicted in Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Others, and El Orfanato.
D: [lounging across the room] You look very pretty.
E: [crouched cross-legged behind her laptop, which sits atop a table] … you can see me?
D: Yes, I can see your legs and a portion of your crotchal region.
E: [pointing] this part?
D: Yes, and now a knuckle.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place
and every day was exactly the same,
and nothing that you did mattered?”
– Phil Connors, Groundhog Day
Days after E. died, I moved into a new apartment, one I’d been waiting for for months. It was a place he’d never seen, the top floor of an 18th-century warehouse with vaulted ceilings and only a handful of windows punched through the brick walls. On the ground floor was the shop where I’d worked for several years; some days, I only had to leave the building for the seven steps from my front door to the shop’s front door.
After my beloved friends helped me move, I fed them, and then they left. I was alone in a new apartment. It was full of boxes and clutter and furniture all at off angles, waiting for me to figure out where the couch should go, which tables went where and which lamps went on them, where art should hang on the wall.
I spent a long time in stasis in that new, dark apartment with all my possessions around me, waiting for me to take a deep breath, embrace my life again, and start living it.
It took a while.
One thing I did set up right away: my VCR. (That alone should tell you how long ago this was, how long ago he died, how young I was, how lost in this big world I felt.) Down the street was a great locally-owned video store with a huge selection and a proprietor I was knew well, even worked for from time to time, but some of those days – most of those first days – just getting to work and living through that day was all I could manage. Dragging myself a block to rent a movie was impossible.
I had a small collection of tapes to play, and the one I turned to over and over was Groundhog Day. Day after day, hour after hour, I’d watch Phil Connors live out the same day, over and over, hour by hour. Sometimes I’d stop the film in the first act, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch half of it, rewind it, and start it again. Sometimes I’d watch to the last few minutes, just before the end, rewind it, and start it again.
Sometimes I’d watch just the end, the last perfect day when Phil saved all those lives, averted all those accidents, fostered all those dreams, then rewind just that sequence, and start it again.
It turns out that Groundhog Day, with its peculiar pattern of repetitions and differences, is weirdly well-suited to this fragmented repeated viewing, and also weirdly ill-suited to it. The film’s chronology began to blur for me. Even when I watched it as intended, from beginning to end, I found I couldn’t remember what happened when, what had already happened, what might happen next.
To have something so familiar and comforting become suddenly unpredictable, confusing, even disruptive – that was just the natural result of my frantic, repeated viewings, of treating a piece of film as a pacifier, but it felt like a metaphor.
Not just that: it felt like an eerily apt metaphor. E. and I had a rocky relationship, but an unquestioned one. We’d known since high school that we would be there for each other, whatever we were to each other, for the rest of our lives. We just didn’t expect “the rest of our lives” to be so short for one of us, and so mismatched.
And now I was floating, flailing, untethered. Without him. A fundamental part of my life, someone I loved as wholly as I loved myself, was simply… gone. Everything I’d known about life as an adult was suddenly uncertain. For a few months, I was incapable of surprise, just a numb mixture of confusion and acceptance.
I was sad and small and lost, and I became careless of my own life and safety in a way that, when I finally noticed it and sternly set myself straight, scared me to my bones.
I won’t say that Groundhog Day saved my life. But it was a companion to me in a time when I needed one, and watching it and laughing and crying day after day, night after night, felt very much like holding hands and swapping jokes with the person I missed most in the the world, and whom I would never see again.
Rest in peace, Harold Ramis. I wish I’d thought to thank you when you were alive, in any of the long, happy years since the dark hours and weeks I’m describing here. I thank you now with all my heart.